I’m Teaching My Teenage Son to Cook. First Step? The Grocery Store.

updated May 30, 2019
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(Image credit: The Kitchn)

My sons are more interested in cooking than I was at their ages. The youngest, age 9, spends most of his time in the kitchen trying to talk someone into cooking for him, and the oldest, age 17, has learned a number of things on his own and is fairly competent in the kitchen. But my middle son, 14 years old, wants more.

I’ve decided to be a little more methodical about teaching my sons to cook. So this week and next I’m counting down the 10 essentials I think they absolutely have to master before they fly the nest — starting with grocery shopping.

How I Think About Teaching Kids to Cook

My mother was not an enthusiastic cook. She didn’t mind putting together healthy meals for our family, but while she was cooking, she preferred talking about sports, what we were doing in school, or what book she was reading. The closest she came to talking about cooking was telling us about her mornings spent volunteering in a local soup kitchen. (In retrospect, this may or may not have been a subtle reminder to appreciate what we had. It worked.)

She could put together multitudes of sandwiches pretty quickly, all while chatting with her fellow volunteers and the people who came in to eat. But she never really taught me how to cook. I guess she knew I would figure it out on my own.

Two Reasons

I want the boys to be competent in the kitchen before they leave home because knowing how to cook leads to healthier meals and lower food budgets.

Now that I’m working full-time, I also want them to be able to put together a meal if we’re running late. They may or may not enjoy it as much as I do, so I want to show them that good, home-cooked food can be simple.

Keeping It Simple

In teaching them how to cook, I’m taking a page from my mom’s book; the less complicated the recipe, the quicker it gets on the table. Growing kids don’t like to wait to eat, which could lead to a bunch of desperate pizza orders when they’re on their own. Once they have the basics, they can improvise as much as they like.

Teenage Cooking Step 1: The Grocery Store

Do you remember when you didn’t know how the grocery store worked? I do. Of course I went with my mom, and I knew the basics. You make a list (but I didn’t know what was on it). You shop the sale stuff (but I didn’t know how to really make a dollar stretch). You buy things you can make, not convenience foods (but I didn’t know how to make much). Lucky for me, I had a roommate in college who had been a little more independent in high school and showed me the ropes. We made a list every week, and shopped within a budget, usually stretching ours to the penny, or at least the loonie (hello, Canadians!).

I didn’t think about grocery shopping as a skill until I told my 14-year-old son I was writing this series about teaching kids to cook, and asked him what he wanted to know. Learning how to shop for food and get good deals was at the top of his list. So we went to the store, and instead of chatting about our day or why he changed his Instagram name to a particular thing (yes, I do know who Fetty Wap is, I just don’t get why your Instagram name needs to relate to “Trap Queen”), we talked groceries.

As we walked through the store, I came up with the following rookie’s list for grocery shopping:

(Image credit: Forrest Clonts)

1. Make a list and a budget, and stick to them.

My college roommate and I used to pore over the weekly grocery flyer, plan our menu, and decide what we’d buy that week. We made one trip to the grocery store, with a set amount of cash. If we had any extra, we’d buy treats, like soda or ice cream. Use your budget for real food first. Junk food is a luxury.

2. Don’t necessarily shop where your parents shop.

We love Whole Foods and other local markets, but we pay a premium for food there, even when we shop carefully. I wouldn’t call my kids spoiled, but we’ve been able to spend more on groceries for a while, and I could see that they might not think of going to a more economical store.

3. Shop the perimeter.

We’ve all heard this one, and if you’re a veteran shopper, you probably take this path out of habit. The perimeter is where much of the whole foods are, especially produce, and you should fill your cart there before going in for the extras.

4. Look for local food and sales in the produce section.

Local, seasonal produce can be less expensive. Overstocked food can be less expensive. And some food is just always less expensive. Bananas — a very nutritious, filling option — will always be cheaper than raspberries. (Except that one time, which I’m sure someone can tell me about in the comments!)

5. Know what your nonperishable staples are, and buy them on sale.

For us, staples include our favorite brand of pasta, canned tomatoes, olive oil, eggs (perishable, but with a pretty long shelf life), and various kinds of vinegar. My son will learn what his staples are when he starts cooking for himself every day.

6. Plan on making meals yourself and skip more expensive convenience foods.

Unless those convenience foods will keep you from eating in a restaurant when you’re feeling lazy. I explained that rule as I picked up one of Whole Foods’ $15.99 family meals — turkey burritos for four and a family sized salad — because I knew I wouldn’t have time to cook that night and would be tempted to call out for pizza. When the prepared meal is half the price, learn to make an exception. There’s nothing wrong with keeping a few frozen pizzas in the freezer.

7. Always buy the store brand, unless something else is a better deal.

Learning to recognize your store’s private label and checking items with hang tags first can go a long way — but always do the math. When I was in college, we took a calculator to the store.

8. Don’t forget snacks.

Not every food is a meal, and not buying snacks doesn’t mean you won’t eat them. Everyone wants popcorn for watching movies, fruit for no reason at all, or a handful of chips to tide you over until dinner. In the chip aisle, my wise son noticed that corn chips were the least expensive option, barring any great sales. And salsa is an easy-to-make or inexpensive dip. Not buying snacks, if you eat them, is a surefire way to spend extra on impulse buys later. And fruit is a staple; everyone needs fruit.

9. Bring your own bags!

It’s not just for hippies anymore. Besides, it’ll be hard enough to keep your first place clean without having to deal with piles of plastic bags.

As for food storage, learning how to shop well and buy what you need will solve a lot of storage problems. I’ve also decided to start talking more to the kids about how long something can be kept in the fridge or freezer before it has to be tossed. (Then again, I might just tell them to look up food safety online, because I definitely push the limits when it comes to eating leftovers; I’m frugal and fearless! The upside? They probably have very strong stomachs.)

I do hope my kids will let me grocery shop with them once, just to get them started. Or maybe I’ll just make sure they know they can reach me by cell phone if they have any questions. But I have to let go some time, right? Right. Maybe I’ll just give them a starter set of spices and condiments. And maybe a bag or two of staples.

What have you taught your teens about shopping for groceries? Did I miss anything?

10 Kitchen Lessons for My Teenage Kid

I’ve decided to be a little more methodical about teaching my sons to cook. So this week and next I’m counting down the ten essentials I think my 14-year-old absolutely has to master before he flies the nest.